Big matchups in the NFC North

Big matchups in the NFC North
October 4, 2013, 12:03 am
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New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) passes in the first half of an NFL football game against the Miami Dolphins in New Orleans, Monday, Sept. 30, 2013. (AP Photo/Bill Haber)

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The Pack is back - on the field, that is, after a bye. And the first chore is a big one: Green Bay needs to beat Detroit at Lambeau Field or fall far behind in the NFC North.

Not that Chicago, the other contender in the division through the first month of the season, has an easy challenge on Sunday, either. The Bears host undefeated New Orleans.

Not much has gone the way the Packers projected early in the schedule, and their only victory is against struggling Washington. The fourth-week bye helped them heal up, and now they feel it's time to make a statement in the division before it's too late.

Besides, their 21-game, regular-season home winning streak against Detroit is the longest in NFL history.

``If we were 3-0, the fact that it's a division game is pretty important, adds a little more significance to the game,'' defensive tackle B.J. Raji said. ``We're aware that a good team is coming in here, but I believe if we play well, we'll have a good chance.''

Chicago comes off a sloppy loss at Detroit, and faces the prolific New Orleans offense. Even with the Saints on a short week after Monday night's romp over Miami, the game offers little comfort for the Bears.

``Their ability to run the ball, their ability to pass the ball,'' Bears safety Chris Conte said, listing what impresses him about the Saints. ``They have (running back Darren) Sproles, who is a big threat, and they also have Jimmy Graham; guys on the outside, Marques Colston - tons of guys who can just push the field, fast guys. And their ability - Drew Brees - to move safeties and find guys deep.

``They're doing a great job.''

Browns 37, Bills 24

In Cleveland, quarterback Brandon Weeden replaced injured starter Brian Hoyer and rallied Cleveland to a 37-24 win Thursday night over Buffalo, which also lost starting rookie quarterback EJ Manuel with a knee injury.

Weeden threw a 37-yard touchdown pass to Josh Gordon in the third quarter as the Browns (3-2) won their third straight and temporarily moved into sole possession of first place in the AFC North.

Safety T.J. Ward intercepted rookie Jeff Tuel's pass and returned it 44 yards for a TD with 1:44 left to end any comeback hopes for the Bills (2-3).

Hoyer sustained a potentially serious right knee injury on a scramble in the first quarter, and Manuel was forced out after taking a helmet to his right knee on a run in the third.

On Sunday, it's New England at Cincinnati, Seattle at Indianapolis, Baltimore at Miami, Kansas City at Tennessee, Denver at Dallas, Houston at San Francisco, San Diego at Oakland, Carolina at Arizona, Philadelphia at the New York Giants, and Jacksonville at St. Louis.

Monday night's matchup has the New York Jets at Atlanta.

Off this week are Minnesota and Washington, both 1-3, Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh, both 0-4.

Detroit (3-1) at Green Bay (1-2)

The Lions can score - so can the Packers, of course - and their offense has nice balance with the emergence of Reggie Bush as a force. Bush comes off a 173-yard game, including a 37-yard touchdown run against the Bears, and has been a perfect complement for star receiver Calvin Johnson.

``Eventually teams are going to have to loosen up on Calvin or Reggie is going to continue to have big days like that,'' Lions coach Jim Schwartz said. ``That's a good position to be in offensively.''

Detroit leads the NFC with eight picks, so Aaron Rodgers needs to be careful.

New Orleans (4-0) at Chicago (3-1)

Careful isn't necessarily in Drew Brees' vocabulary because even when he gambles, such as throwing into triple coverage to Jimmy Graham, the brilliant tight end comes up with a TD catch.

Still, the Bears are a ball-hungry bunch on defense, leading the league with 14 takeaways, and will need to be aggressive. If they expect their offense to keep pace with the Saints, that could be a pipe dream.

New England (4-0) at Cincinnati (2-2)

Other than Tom Brady, the one player the Patriots probably couldn't afford to have go down is nose tackle Vince Wilfork. He did against Atlanta with a torn Achilles tendon, so New England will be without the heart of its improved defense.

Expect the Bengals to respond with a heavy dose of former Patriot BenJarvus Green-Ellis and rookie Giovani Bernard running the ball.

Brady has never lost to the Bengals (4-0) and the Patriots have won six straight regular-season road games.

Seattle (4-0) at Indianapolis (3-1)

OK, no more questioning the Seahawks' road skills after that gutsy comeback victory at Houston. Seattle's defense should be good enough to win anywhere, so this will be a test because Indy is showing some versatility with the ball.

Most fun to watch here might not be second-year QBs Andrew Luck against Russell Wilson, but the running game with powerhouses Marshawn Lynch for Seattle and Trent Richardson for Indianapolis.

Baltimore (2-2) at Miami (3-1)

After that stinker in Buffalo, the Ravens are in a tough spot. They need Joe Flacco to avoid turnovers (five interceptions against the Bills) and for the running game with Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce to wake up.

The Dolphins were sent back to earth by New Orleans last weekend, and a previously staunch defense was exposed, particularly in pass coverage. Plus, QB Ryan Tannehill is getting hit too much, on pace to set a team record for being sacked and perhaps threaten the league mark of 76.

Kansas City (4-0) at Tennessee (3-1)

The Titans' turnaround could get derailed with emerging quarterback Jake Locker out for several weeks with a hip injury. At least they have a veteran backup in Ryan Fitzpatrick, and they'll likely turn to Chris Johnson and the ground game more often.

Kansas City, only the second franchise to go 4-0 after a two-win season, is winning with solid defense, especially the pass rush, and a conservative attack. The Chiefs had their first giveaways last Sunday, yet still routed the Giants.

Denver (4-0) at Dallas (2-2)

Peyton Manning's 16 TD passes are the most through four games in any season, on pace for 64, which would shatter Tom Brady's record of 50.

Dallas has allowed 10 touchdown throws already, but at least the Cowboys can get after the quarterback, with 14 sacks. They have little chance of pulling off an upset if they can't slow Manning and crew.

``We didn't get to Philip Rivers enough, we did not make him uncomfortable,'' coach Jason Garrett said, referring to last week's loss at San Diego. ``We done a good job in the first three games making the quarterback's job hard and we were sacking him, and hitting him and getting him off the spot. We didn't do that last week. We have to do that this week.''

Uh, yeah.

Houston (2-2) at San Francisco (2-2)

Yet another quality matchup, with both sides having something to prove as they look up in their division.

The Niners were awful in their last home game and got manhandled by the Colts. Then they blew out St. Louis in a short week and have had plenty of time to prepare for the Texans.

Houston, which trails Indy and Tennessee in the AFC South, dominated Seattle, the NFC West leader, for more than a half last Sunday, then folded. San Francisco's ultra-aggressive defense will go hard after QB Matt Schaub.

New York Jets (2-2) at Atlanta (1-3), Monday night

It's getting to be a dire time for the Falcons, who have gone from nearly making the Super Bowl to an also-ran behind the Saints in the NFC South. Their defeats have been close, but that might be even more worrisome - can they close the deal? They rank 29th in red zone efficiency.

Getting the inconsistent and banged-up Jets in prime time could be the cure all, especially if New York's normally reliable defense struggles the way it did at Tennessee.

San Diego (2-2) at Oakland (1-3)

Break out the caffeine to stay awake for this one. The Raiders share a stadium with the Athletic, and a baseball playoff game was scheduled there Saturday night, 8:35 local time.

The Chargers' offense can be dynamic and Rivers is off to a good start, behind only Manning in passer rating. Oakland's pass defense is decent, but must slow down TE Antonio Gates, who is back to top form.

Carolina (1-2) at Arizona (2-2)

Coming off a 38-0 rout of the Giants, the Panthers believe they are ready for some steady success. A stumble here would set them back significantly.

The key could be whether Arizona's run defense, ranked second, can stop the No. 3 rushing game Carolina brings. The Panthers let QB Cam Newton run more against New York, and it worked brilliantly.

Philadelphia (1-3) at New York Giants (0-4)

An Eagles win could lift them into a tie for first place in the avert-your-eyes NFC East if Dallas falls to Denver. Then again, if the Giants win, they'd be back in contention.

Philly's defense can't seem to cover or tackle in the open field, but it likely will concentrate on rushing Eli Manning, who's already been sacked 14 times. New York has only four sacks, and chasing down Michael Vick isn't easy.

Jacksonville (0-4) at St. Louis (1-3)

Even with the Rams struggling - no running game, inconsistent defense - they are a big favorite over the Jaguars. Gus Bradley's first stint as a head coach has been unrewarding so far in Jacksonville, where people are beginning to whisper the dreaded ``0-16.''

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AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org

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